[Column] Memories of rude American reporters

Posted on : 2021-01-29 18:05 KST Modified on : 2021-01-29 18:05 KST
Washington constantly overlooks Korea in its foreign policy
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds his first press conference at the US Department of State in Washington on Jan 27. (Reuters/Yonhap News)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds his first press conference at the US Department of State in Washington on Jan 27. (Reuters/Yonhap News)

Every October, the South Korean defense minister and the US defense secretary meet in Seoul or Washington. It’s called the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), and it began in Washington in October 2008.

There were quite a lot of issues in South Korea-US relations that year, when the Lee Myung-bak administration publicly announced that it would “restore the damaged South Korea-US alliance.”

At the time, I was covering the Ministry of National Defense (MND), and I traveled to Washington to follow the talks. A joint press conference was held by the two defense leaders at the Pentagon on Oct. 17, 2008. It was a rare opportunity for me and other Korean journalists to ask questions about the alliance directly to the US secretary of defense.

The Korean reporters took turns asking the secretary about issues such as the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON), US Forces Korea (USFK) troop reductions, Washington’s strategy of deterring the nuclearization of other countries, and plans for continuing South Korea-US military exercises.

American reporters ignored S. Korea in joint press conference

But the American reporters at the press conference directed their questions solely at US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. They seemed completely uninterested in South Korea-US relations. Throughout the conference, they kept asking about the war in Afghanistan, which was the big issue in the US at the time.

At first, I was quite annoyed with those reporters for asking Gates only about Afghanistan, when this was ostensibly supposed to be a joint press conference by the South Korean and US defense ministers.

But as I thought about it more, I came to understand. In any situation, an American reporter is obviously going to ask about the things the US public wants to know about. It also occurred to me that while issues with the South Korea-US alliance may be a huge deal to South Korea, the American reporters might view it as unimportant.

Recently, Chung Eui-yong, nominee to become the next foreign minister, issued a statement a day apart from the first press conference held by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Leaving for work on the morning of Jan. 28, Chung told reporters, “The alliance between South Korea and the US is the backbone of our diplomacy.” It sounded as if he wanted to prevent a telephone conversation between the South Korean and Chinese heads of state escalating into a debate over whether Seoul was “disregarding” the alliance.”

Blinken appeared in front of the press for the first time at the State Department on the afternoon of Jan. 27. The first question was about his priorities in terms of foreign policies that need review. Blinken answered that he was “particularly focused” on issues related to Yemen.

The next six questions were about Russia, the Middle East, Afghanistan, China, Iran, and restoring US leadership in the international community. Issues relating to the Korean peninsula did not come up once in the briefing that day. Reading through the transcript of Blinken’s briefing, I remembered that press conference at the Pentagon 13 years ago.

Ever since the US presidential election last November, many scholars and experts have focused on the prospects of the Biden administration’s foreign and national security policies. Most experts have focused their analyses on North Korea-US and South Korea-US relations. At the time of Blinken’s Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, Korean news outlets devoted major coverage to his remarks about wanting to “review the policy toward North Korea.”

Blinken barely mentioned N. Korea in Senate confirmation hearing

But North Korea represented only a minuscule portion of the hearing’s overall content. I was intrigued by a social media post by one diplomat who analyzed the frequency of certain words mentioned during Blinken’s hearing. Between his statements and his responses to senators, he spoke a total of 38,257 words during the entire hearing (titles included).

Most of his responses were concerned with the Middle East (including Afghanistan), totaling 12,000 words or 31.4% of the total. Next was China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong) at 5,600 words (14.8%), Europe and Russia (including arms reductions) at 4,530 words (11.8%) and COVID-19 at 950 words (2.5%). The remaining 38% was devoted to US State Department reports, South and Central America, Africa and development aid.

Just 500 words (1.3%) were about North Korea.

It’s not new for US diplomacy to focus on the Middle East, Europe and China. The reason North Korea launches missiles and conducts nuclear tests whenever a new administration takes office in the US has been to attract Washington’s attention.

It’s important that Pyongyang does not attempt such provocation in the early stages of the Biden administration. We need to hold discussions with the US so that issues related to the Korean Peninsula are swiftly moved up on Washington’s list of priorities.

If South and North Korea hope to truly win the US’ support, they will need to think of strategies that broaden their scope beyond the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia and encompass Middle East and European issues as well. North Korean officials in particular should pay heed to their leader Kim Jong-un’s remarks about how “it is not the world that exists in North Korea, but it is North Korea that exists in the world.”

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, editorial writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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